How to create a truly supportive community online

How to Build a Neighborhood Online
Building an online community is different from building an audience. Again, read that sentence.

When growing an audience, especially one that lives on social media, it’s easy to get lost in the algorithm game or get distracted by the number of people who follow you instead of the people who interact with you. But building a community means making a place where real people with real problems can find real solutions.

Tim Stoddart and I talked about the main differences between building a community and building a following on an episode of the Growth Machine Marketing Podcast. Tim, who is a writer, a partner at Copyblogger, and the founder of Sober Nation, the world’s largest community for people in recovery from drugs and alcohol, has always tried to build a community first and a following second.

We’ll tell you how to start an online community, where it happens, and how to make money from it (if that’s your goal).

What is a community on the web?
Before we get into how to build a community, let’s talk about what an online community is.

An online community is the same as a group of people you know in “real life,” away from your phone or computer. It’s a place where a group of people get together to talk about things they all like, learn from each other, and feel like they belong. You can join a fitness community (group workouts or a running club), a work community (a co-working space), or a hobby community (a writers’ meetup).

Every person who joins one of these communities gets something out of it. If 15 people join a local running group every Tuesday night, each runner gets the same benefits as jogging five miles.

This is what separates playing the algorithm game from building an online community.

When you focus too much on metrics like likes and follows on social media (and how to make the most of these key performance indicators), the benefits of using the channel can become too one-sided. If a social media influencer gets paid to post, that money goes to the influencer and not to the group as a whole.

When Tim started his blog in 2010, he noticed this difference. Back in the 2000s, many bloggers grew their sites to get advertisers. Ad money was the main key performance indicator (KPI). Very few bloggers (and even fewer businesses) blogged just to create good content that would answer questions from potential customers and build a real audience. So, when Tim started writing about his sobriety, he made a place for people with similar experiences to talk about them. By doing this, he helped start a new online community.

How to Start a Group on the Internet
Building a community is as simple as making a place where people can talk about things they have in common. So, keep the following goals in mind when you start to build your own community.

1. Figure out your purpose
When you’re building your online community, you should be thinking about how to help other people, not how to help yourself.

Tim built Sober Nation because he wanted to make a place where people who were addicted to drugs could get better. He wrote about his experiences with drugs and alcohol and asked others to do the same. They were all there for the same reason: to get clean.

To figure out what your purpose is, think about the different kinds of online communities you belong to. Why are you there? You might like having a free community where you can share tips on how to invest so you can retire early. You might be an active member of the Buy Nothing group in your neighbourhood to reduce your carbon footprint and save money. Or maybe you watch every webinar that your favourite Instagram coach puts on to help you grow your own business.

Now: What do you care about enough to build and run your own online community? What sets you apart the most? The best communities are led by moderators who have a strong sense of purpose and, as a result, are able to bring together a group of active members who share that purpose.

2. Try to have conversations, not to win.
There is a lot of fierce competition on the web. Successful online communities know that it can be very helpful to interact with (or even work with) their competitors.

When he was making Sober Nation, Tim learned this lesson. As someone who works in healthcare, Tim quickly realised that healthcare was one of the most competitive online spaces. He didn’t try to get rid of or avoid his competition. Instead, he chose to work with it. He realised that these conversations were going to happen anyway. The only question was whether or not they would happen on his platform.

For example, Tim is a partner and content marketer at Copyblogger. We could think of Tim as a competitor at Growth Machine, but we see him as a friend. Tim’s show, the Tim Stodz Podcast, talked to Amanda, who was our Head of Marketing at the time. In return, we talked to Tim here at Growth Machine. In both cases, we were able to learn something from the conversation and put out episodes that helped our communities learn.

3. Stay on track. At every place where we meet
Customer communities are built on real conversations and real engagement from the community. Keep those real conversations going at all of your online community’s points of contact.

Here are some ideas on how to build an online community across all platforms:

Podcasts: If you have a podcast, do research on a possible guest for 30 minutes before sending them a cold email or messaging them on social media. Find out what makes them tick and start with something personal about the person.
Facebook groups: It’s easy for Facebook groups to fill up with a lot of people whose posts seem like spam or lazy template posts. Assign community managers to moderate discussions, encourage user-generated posts, and ask new members to write one or two sentences about themselves as an introduction.
Email newsletters: We focus too much on numbers like the number of subscribers and not enough on engagement. Send your email list a customer experience survey every three months to make sure their problems are being fixed and their needs as a community are being met.
Social networks like Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn are good examples of online communities, but they can’t be one-way conversations. Answer every (serious) question in your comments to add value, build a sense of community, and make people more loyal to your brand.
When building a brand community for the first time, you’ll have to start from scratch because your target audience won’t know much about your brand. So look for places where people are already talking, like Reddit, Quora, and other online forums, and join in.
Listen to episode 12 of the Growth Machine podcast, “The Key to Success is Being Specific,” for more ideas on how to build a branded online community.

Can an online community make money?
Yes, in a nutshell.

Longer answer: Yes, but it shouldn’t be your only focus or goal, especially when building a brand-new community.

Members of the community are smart. They can tell when a conversation isn’t real or is only going one way. They can tell if an influencer or thought leader is a real fan of a brand or just getting paid to say good things about it.

Once your community and its value have been established, a business goal could be to make money and bring in customers. Tim, for example, made money off of Copyblogger’s community by starting Copyblogger Pro, a new membership service that offers a monthly masterclass and an exclusive support community of content marketers.

Here’s another illustration: Christina Pashialis, the founder of ContentUK, started her community in a pub with a small group, moved it to Slack, and now runs a dynamic ecosystem with workshops, job boards, and more. In the end, she worked for the community full-time. She has figured out how to keep people interested and active in an online community while still making money from it.

Putting together a community online starts with real conversations.
Online communities give people with similar interests a place to learn, share, and grow together in real time.

You can build an online community by starting a podcast, writing weekly SEO-focused content, or setting up a community forum. No matter which online space you choose, all of your conversations should be purposeful and real, adding value to your industry.

When you build a community, you become known as a trusted thought leader in your field, which can lead to sales or more referrals. Or, you can offer a paid membership tier to make money directly from your community.

Don’t try to market your content on your own; sign up for the Growth Machine newsletter. We love helping business owners improve their content marketing strategies so that their traffic goes through the roof.

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